Mansfield College

Our history

Mansfield College was founded in 1834 as a place to study for those who – because of their religion – had been historically excluded from the University of Oxford. Initially named Spring Hill College (and located in Birmingham), its purpose was to provide further education and theological training for nonconformist ministers, primarily of the Congregationalist denomination. It moved to Oxford and its current site in 1886, something made possible by a series of reforms which permitted Protestant dissenters to study at the University.

Our founders, George and Elizabeth Mansfield and Sarah Glover, were ideologically opposed to slavery. We have examined the sources of our endowment, including checking all donors to Mansfield on the database operated by University College London’s Legacies of British Slaveownership database ( and do not believe that any of our endowment income is based on slave-ownership.

In 1841, whilst still in its Spring Hill incarnation, the College signed a letter along with a number of UK theological colleges to their American counterparts, calling for the abolition of slavery in the US. The letter describes slavery in the US South as ‘a system in which heartless cruelty unceasingly panders to the most contemptible avarice.’ It argued that failure to act in the face of great injustice amounts to tacit approval of such injustice, the signatories wrote:

we are obliged to believe that the Christian church in America is deeply involved in the guilt of holding two millions of human beings in this cruel and debasing bondage. If not one of her members ever touched the profits of tyranny, we should say that to a great extent she was responsible, because she has never distinctly and solemnly condemned the system.

Other alumni of Mansfield College also took from its theological training a profound belief in human equality and dignity. For example, Adam von Trott, who studied at Mansfield in the 1930s, was executed for his participation in the plot to assassinate Hitler, after being appalled by Nazi antisemitism. Alex Boraine, a South African minister who studied theology at Mansfield was the head of the Methodist church at the height of apartheid and took a firm stand that the Church should be multi-racial. He was later an architect of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission.

Nonetheless, it is important also to recognise the complexities of Congregationalists’ relation to black histories and imperialism. Congregationalists dominated the country’s leading missionary organisation, the London Missionary Society. Susan Thorne’s 1999 study, Congregational Missions and the Making of an Imperial Culture in 19th-Century England, notes that Congregationalist missionaries were largely radical and liberal in outlook, their stated aims were humanitarian, and they often dissented from the colonial objectives of the state. However, some missionaries’ operations included violent practices such as flogging and often reiterated highly racialized views of those they sought to help. As Thorne puts it, missionaries advanced a project of 'moral conquest' which included the attempt to impose British ideals of middle-class domesticity. She concludes that ‘missionaries were not simply men and women of their times, as missionary apologists would have it. Missionaries and their metropolitan supporters helped to create a political culture in which imperialism was rendered effectively unassailable.’

Mansfield College has also occasionally benefited from organisations with more complicated imperial histories; for instance, the college has been the recipient of a grant from the Rhodes Trust (to assist in improving college accommodation).

Our Scholarship and Ethos Today

Many members of our Governing Body today engage in scholarship and practice on issues of race, colonialism and diversity, and have been active in working to broaden the curriculum and to raise awareness of issues of colonial legacy and racism in their teaching. For example:

  • Our history fellows, Professor Kathryn Gleadle and Dr Helen Lacey, have ensured that study of historical and theoretical approaches to ‘race’ is a compulsory component of the undergraduate syllabus within college, and Professor Gleadle has been active in the history faculty in revising the curriculum to include texts authored by formerly enslaved people and women of South Asian and Caribbean descent – including Una Marston, the first black female broadcaster at the BBC - in two optional subjects on women’s history.
  • Professor Michèle Mendelssohn, a Mansfield Governing Body fellow, curated “Making History”, a 2019-2020 exhibition and event series celebrating Oxford University’s first Black African undergraduate, Christian Cole; the first African-American Rhodes scholar and midwife to the Harlem Renaissance, Alain Locke; and Oscar Wilde.
  • Our Principal Helen Mountfield QC is a barrister and legal scholar who has spent a 30 year career specialising in equality law and anti-racism, and – as a barrister and judge – been involved in developing equality law, including in particular on equal access to education (in cases including R(Watkins-Singh) v Aberdare Girls’ High School; R (E) v Governing Body of JFS; and R(Tigere) v Secretary of State for Business Innovation & Skills); and on modern slavery (including winning CN v United Kingdom, the first case against the UK for failing to take adequate steps to prevent servitude in the European Court of Human Rights, and writing an opinion cited by Parliament as a reason to introduce the offence of servitude in English law in 2009). She is a trustee of the Equal Rights Trust, and frequently lectures and participates in seminars for BCL students on comparative human rights and comparative equality law.
  • Dr Amber Murrey, one of Mansfield’s human geography fellows and a member of Mansfield’s Governing Body, has written widely on race, neo-imperialism and extraction in African societies, including on the Pan-African politics and legacies of the late president of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara. She practices anti-racist pedagogies and has collaborated in a variety of decolonising university projects from Ethiopia to Egypt.
  • Since 2018, the College has also been the home of the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights, opened by Kofi Annan, which puts Mansfield at the heart of research and engagement with global, regional and local human rights issues across the University. Professor Kate O’Regan, Director of the Bonavero Institute of Human Rights and a member of Mansfield’s Governing Body, was a member of the first post-apartheid Constitutional Court of South Africa and gave a series of important judgments on equality law (including MEC Education Kwa-Zulu Natal v Pillay). Dr Annelen Micus, the Institute’s Head of Programmes, is an expert in transitional justice in Columbia.
  • In 2020, a series of seminars at the Bonavero Institute was convened by Samantha Knights QC on the History and Law of Modern Slavery. There was also a popular public lecture given by Wendy Williams, author of the Windrush Report on Lessons Learned, and what needs to be done to decolonise the curriculum.
  • Mansfield’s inclusive ethos remains a strong elements of the College’s identity. We are proud of our students, who take active steps to address racism and inequality. In 2020, three of the four executive officers of the University of Oxford’s African and Caribbean Society were Mansfield students.

In addition, the College encourages and facilitates the discussion of these themes in its rich cultural life:

  • The College’s weekly Friday Public Talks have provided an important forum, both for the college and the wider community in Oxford, in which discussions about racism and the legacies of colonialism can take place. For example, recent events have featured Kamal Ahmed talking about his book, The Life and Times of a Very British Man; Dr Nola Iphraim talking about her experience as the first Black Director of Nursing in the UK; Wendy Williams and Dr Shreya Atrey discussing the Windrush Report; and Angela Saini talking on her book Superior: the return of ‘race science’.
  • The first winner of the Mansfield-Ruddock Art Prize, Anya Gleizer, won the prize for work ‘Granny’s Bones’ (now in Mansfield’s collection); based on an Oxford-based anthropologist’s cultural appropriation of Evenki artifacts.

Taking steps to promote academic pathways and to amplify voices of people of colour

Mansfield’s Governing Body recognises that people of colour are acutely underrepresented in academic life at Oxford University, including at Mansfield, where our staff team and Governing Body are not as diverse as they should be.

We are taking active steps to address this. For example:

  • A recent initiative has been the establishment of a Race and Equality Working Group, made up of administrative and operational staff and fellows, to make recommendations on further steps we can take to enhance our racial diversity through our recruitment and employment processes.
  • Mansfield is a partner college for the new Black Academic Futures Scholarships in the 2021- 22 academic year, through which it will contribute to funding UK Black and Mixed-Black students’ graduate study at Oxford.
  • We now have seven post-graduate scholars annually from the Global South named for Kofi Annan, in conjunction with the Weidenfeld-Hoffmann Trust.
  • We have a Reach scholarship funded by members of the JCR, MCR and SCR, for a person with fragile immigration status.
  • From 2021 will have an annual postgraduate refugee scholar (funded by a private benefactor and by the Lutheran World Federation of Churches); and we are seeking to work with the founders of the Cities (and Universities) of Sanctuary Scheme to extend our intellectual and human links with refugees and asylum seekers.
  • Our Professorial Fellow, Dame Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, donated the whole of her £2.3 million Special Breakthrough Prize in 2018 for her discovery of pulsars (in 1967) to establish the Bell Burnell Scholarship Fund administered by the Institute of Physics to promote greater diversity in the study of physics.
  • Mansfield has developed a reputation for its access and outreach work; its inclusive ethos remaining strong elements of the College’s identity. Over the last three years (to October 2019), the proportion of total UK students admitted onto undergraduate courses at Mansfield who identify as BME was 26.6%.